It's probably dangerous to subtitle a biographical play "The Kick-Ass Wit," as twin-sister journalist-playwrights Margaret and Allison Engel do in their star vehicle about colleague Molly Ivins, Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins. Currently running at the Geffen Playhouse, it features Kathleen Turner in the title role of what's almost a solo performance. (Matthew Van Oss portrays a young copy boy who whisks across the stage a few times in order to retrieve a clipping from the onstage AP wire machine.)
Molly Ivins was to journalism what Ricky Gervais is to the Golden Globes — the kind of character in possession of a particularly caustic brand of satire that makes the knees of the rich and powerful grow wobbly. Her political drift was lucidly left.
Ivins was a thick-featured California native who grew up in the wealthy River Oaks community of Houston, attended Smith College and received a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University, before returning to Texas (as an intern at the Houston Chronicle). She went on to the Minneapolis Star Tribune but cut her teeth as a co-editor on the feisty Texas Observer in the 1970s. Later The New York Times hired her as Western region correspondent. Caught by surprise at Elvis Presley's death, the newspaper called upon her to write the obit, which she did.
Once, for a story about chicken slaughtering in New Mexico, Ivins offered the headline "Gang Pluck," for which she was read the riot act by New York–based editor Abe Rosenthal.
"Gang pluck is an allusion to gang fuck. You were trying to get the readers to think of the word fuck," Rosenthal lectured.
"Damn it, Abe," she replied, "you are a hard man to fool."
Soon after, Ivins was fired from The New York Times.
She also owned a dog named Shit, whom she'd sometimes leave outside, so she could exit to call his name loudly.
As an example of why Ivins found The New York Times cramped her style, the paper's obit of Ivins describes this eccentricity: "She cut an unusual figure in The Times newsroom, wearing blue jeans, going barefoot and bringing in her dog, whose name was an expletive."
The centerpiece for her mockery was the Texas State House: "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention." It was Ivins who coined the terms Shrub and Dubya for George W. Bush (whom she knew from high school); she also called for his impeachment and was a rabid opponent of his war in Iraq. Eventually, her column became syndicated in about 350 newspapers.
Back to that "kick-ass wit," which, as a subtitle, feels more like a commercial than a description, like the occasional artistic director who stands onstage before a new production is about to begin and tells us what a great time we're about to have. Thanks, but isn't that up to us to decide?
If you read through the multitude of quotations from the career of Molly Ivins, you'll find samples of unimpeachable wit. Those virtues appear only in fits and starts at the Geffen.
This is partly because the Engels have forced Ivins to speak about herself, and about writing, which is never easy. The androgynous Turner starts the play boots on table, struggling to write an article — even a sentence — about her authoritarian father. The reason for this will twist back around by play's end. In between, she'll be plucking AP wire stories, which will remind her of chapters in her career. So the structure is almost entirely anecdotal, through which Ivins must comment upon how clever she is.
The structural problem is only compounded by Turner's halting delivery (under David Esbjornson's arthritic direction), which splices up jokes and a style of wit that really do require a sustained delivery.
Turner looks the part and certainly has the panache. But for a solo biography of this length, there's so much left unturned. Ivins says she could never get close to people. Well, there's a window onto something — an adulated/reviled journalist who has trouble connecting with people — that gets absorbed into a sponge of femme-biker attitude and posturing.
Ivins loved bikers. She loved Texas. She loved to laugh at the place. This performance captures just shadows of all that.
RED HOT PATRIOT: THE KICK-ASS WIT OF MOLLY IVINS | Written by Margaret and Allison Engel | Directed by David Esbjornson | Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. | Through Feb. 12 | (310) 208-5454 | geffenplayhouse.com